School Choice

"The Libertarian Case for School Choice"

It's National School Choice Week, with over 16,000 events celebrating expanded options for students, parents...and teachers too.

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Reason is proud to once again be involved with National School Choice Week, which celebrates school choice broadly defined. Over the next week or so, over 16,000 events in every state in the country will champion the growth and variety of programs that bring more options to more students and parents (and teachers, too).

Most school-choice proponents trace the roots of the current movement to Milton Friedman's 1955 essay proposing universal school vouchers for K-12 students (read Reason's 2005 interview with him about that here). According to the foundation that bears Friedman's name (and that of his wife and collaborator, Rose), "there are 59 school choice programs on the books in 28 states and the District of Columbia." These range from voucher programs that allow mostly low-income children to attend whatever schools they want; Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs), which give kids a lump sum of public money to be spent on education however they and their parents decide; tax-credit scholarships, which allow taxpayers to deduct money they donate to educational organizations; and individual tax credits and deductions, which allow parents to deduct educational expenses from their own taxes.

Then there are charter schools, which are publicly funded schools run by nonprofits (and occassionally by for-profit firms) that receive a portion of a district's per-pupil spending amount but are free from many district regulations. Charters started in the 1990s in Minnesota and now, according to the Department of Education:

From school year 1999–2000 to 2012–13, the percentage of all public schools that were public charter schools increased from 1.7 to 6.2 percent, and the total number of public charter schools increased from 1,500 to 6,100. During the most recent period from 2011–12 to 2012–13, the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 5.8 to 6.2 percent, and the total number of public charter schools increased from 5,700 to 6,100.  

Schools that are chosen by parents and students using public funds are not only becoming more popular, they are effective. Here's a 2013 summary by Greg Foster of "gold-standard" studies that match students in choice programs with similar students in traditional public schools that are assigned based on residential address.

Source: A Win-Win Solution, The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, Greg Foster, The Friedman Foundation, April 2013

As important, I'd argue that school-choice programs represent a powerful step forward in what we at Reason sometimes call "the Libertarian Moment," or "a time of increasingly hyper-individualized, hyper-expanded choice over every aspect of our lives…a world where it's more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms."

We take this trend for granted in our personal lives, our work lives, and our cultural lives, where repressive old standards continue to break down swiftly. Education is one of the few places where our kids are still stuck in places that look like the minimum-security prisons or light-industrial factories we attended—and the ones our parents attended before us. School choice allows us to individualize our kids' education just as we increasingly individualize so many aspects of our own lives, from racial and gender affiliation to where and who we work to what sorts of movies, music, and food we produce and consume.

To the extent that school choice privileges individual needs over rigid conformity and responds to differences in students instead of trying to treat all as identical inputs, it's an important break with old, industrial models of education and social organization.

We'll be returing to this issue throughout the week and making the libertarian case for school choice.

In the meantime, check out National School Choice Week's website and this vid below, which talks about how technology provides a way past boring and ineffective education:

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25 responses to “"The Libertarian Case for School Choice"

  1. Damn, that graph from Cato showing spending vs performance is depressing. A prettified version of that ought to be plastered all over the Department of Education.

    1. Why does everyone ignore the benefits of the multiplier effect?

    2. And that total cost isn’t even the total cost – what price does a half-educated idiot pay for being subjected to 12 years of effort to make him a half-educated idiot? What opportunity costs are the rest of us paying for having the schools produce half-educated idiots?

      1. I think it may be overstating the “benefits” (such as they are), too. Math, reading, and science performance has been mostly flat for decades, but if the curriculum hasn’t kept up with the increasingly technical and complex nature of the modern world (and I suspect it has not), then students are less prepared now in important subjects than they were 30 years ago, even if their test scores are roughly the same.

        1. Math, reading, and science performance has been mostly flat for decades

          Only if you view the population as a whole; disaggregate the data by categories such as socioeconomic status (SES) or race/ethnicity and the story is completely different.

    3. It’s also a completely predictable outcome based on where an outsize proportion of the increased spending is directed, which is to say that the ROI on special ed is rather poor.

    4. A prettified version of that ought to be plastered all over the Department of Education.

      The bureaucrats there will probably think that’s a feature, not a bug.

  2. Peyton has it over Tom.

    Eighteen has it over twelve.

  3. My daughter’s charter school has all kinds of School Choice Week events planned, which I found out when I walked her into school this morning. If I’d known about that in advance I’d have had Reason propaganda ready.

  4. Here in New Hampshire, Executive Councilor and candidate for governor Chris Sununu wrote an editorial on school choice recently published in the Union Leader. The thrust was that he wants the federal government and bureaucracy to butt out. School choice means bureaucracy and control at the STATE level.

      1. True. The attorney general coming down hard on Croydon tells us how afraid the bureaucrats and unions are of even a hint of choice.

        1. The efforts and relative success of guys like Fred Bramante have caused a huge backlash from the educational bureaucracy in NH. A colleague of mine attended a conference where the commissioner of education, Virginia Barry, used her time to launch into an attack on charter schools. She actually said that the charter school movement “seeks to destroy public education”. Never mind that by definition, charter schools re public school. The point is they’re scared. I expect things to get worse in NH before they get better on this front. Especially if Hassan stays in office.

          1. I’ll have to read up on Bramante when I’m home tonight.

            1. Remember Daddy’s Junky Music?

              1. yes. never paid enough attention to know Bramante was the founder.

  5. I’ve been living the case for school choice for 5 years now. Paying $1,100 a month in property taxes and about the same for my kids’ Catholic high school – in order to avoid the shitty regional high school our district gets dumped into.

  6. Separation of school and state is ultimate in school choice.

    1. The most urgent necessity is, not that the State should teach, but that it should allow education. All monopolies are detestable, but the worst of all is the monopoly of education.

      Bastiat

      1. Bastiat is horribly undertaught.

  7. If Charter Schools get to select the kids allowed into their school, then might they not select the troubled kids, special education kids, disabled kids? If so, then is the data skewed that shows Charter Schools outperforming regular public schools? This question was brought to me when I was discussing it with someone who was against Charter Schools (I’m for them).

  8. Is there a libertarian case for “you go to school wherever the fark we, the government, tell you to go” non-choice?

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